I’m currently in Barcelona, for an event called the Drumbeat Festival, organized by Mozilla, the folk who bring us Firefox. Sponsorship and support are also provided by the Macarthur Foundation, tbe Carnegie Foundation, and Creative Commons, among others.
The event’s themes are “Learning, Freedom and the Web.” It’s quite a hybrid of academics, teachers, educational technologists, programmers, hackers, and others. It’s a diverse and sometimes chaotic collection of activities. I’ve met a few good people, and there are no doubt some interesting ideas buzzing around.
Some quick, perhaps contrarian, thoughts…
- The event has essentially been parachuted into Barcelona. There is almost no Spanish (all the signage, for instance, is completely monolingual English), let alone Catalan. There is certainly no attempt at simultaneous translation. There’s no sign of any local organizers. As Liz Castro puts it, it’s “pretty surreal being surrounded by Americans and English speaking Europeans right in the center of Barcelona”. Frankly, the festival might as well be in Timbuktu, or on the moon. Barcelona provides local color and evening diversion, is all. The strangest instance of this imposition of English upon the landscape is on the map that all attendees were given: we’re told of some rooms that are on the “fourth floor (push 3 in elevator).” Um, you mean in fact this is the third floor. Yes, they count differently over here, but it’s bizarre that the organizers feel the need to re-map and redescribe the local environment so thoroughly.
- Not unrelatedly, there’s an awful amount of money swishing around here. This event can’t have been cheap to put on, and plenty of the organizations represented here have clearly shelled out plenty for the privilege.
- Even so, in a rousing opening session yesterday morning, we were told that we were disruptive forces, who were gathered to participate in the “joy of insurgency.” The session at which we told this had the feel of a religious revivalist meeting, or (perhaps better) an American sales convention: hyped-up applause at every point, led by an over-excited MC. It seemed rude to disrupt the so-called disruption, so fully were we expected to buy into it. Now, I’m a fan of joyous insurgency as much as the next insurgent (it’s much better than the miserable sort, after all), and in fact I liked Cathy Davidson’s mini-keynote in which the phrase was introduced. What makes me suspicious is how enthusiastically everyone felt able to be coerced into it. Surely it couldn’t last?
- And indeed, later that day I went to a couple of sessions on “badges.” The idea is interesting: how to come up with other forms of credential for non-traditional or extra-institutional learning. Should not people have confirmation of the skills they learn as they participate in wikis or other online communities, as they teach themselves programming or facilitation? Shouldn’t blogs or even twitter feeds be counted as achievements in some way, and rewarded with some kind of symbolic capital? The problem of credentialling is indeed worth discussing. Unfortunately, the discussion soon devolved into ideas as to how to replace university degrees… with modes of assessment that were more “granular” (involving closer surveillance, no doubt) and more transparent to students’ future employers. Better still: shouldn’t businesses and corporations have input into the ways in which universities constructed and awarded credentials? Shouldn’t, in short, capital be more fully involved in determining the shape of tertiary education? Shouldn’t universities be more fully instrumental for commerce? No wonder that the role models suggested for these new credentials were those well-known insurgents… Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.
So, Drumbeat is full of well-intentioned people, full of energy. But the insurgent optimism of the opening session lasted all of a couple of hours, soon turning into the dystopia of how to realize more fully an over-surveilled society of control, without anyone seeming to note the contradiction or (at best) tension between the various elements of the Mozilla / Open Education vision.
The fact that all this is taking place in an Anglophone, North American bubble that crassly rewrites even the basic signs of the environment into which its resources and money have been dropped, is perhaps not unrelated to the event’s rah-rah enthusiasm and (so far as I could tell) blithe refusal to consider nuance, contradiction, or complications to its techno-utopian vision.
Update: and now a follow-up here.
Further update: Ha! For all the championing of disruption, I note that neither this post nor its follow-up are featured in Mark Surman’s otherwise comprehensive collection of Drumbeat links. (Now, thanks to my pointing this fact out, Surman has finally added them.)